The longest and most challenging trail at White Sands National Monument also provides you with the best and most intimate experience with the dunes. The Alkali Flats Trail is a 4.4 mile loop route that begins and ends at the far end of the park road.
The path (ok, there’s no real path, just a rough route that follows markers in the sand) takes you to the western edge of the dunes, and onto the wide-open alkali flats.
Beyond the sand dunes, and on the other side of the alkali flats, are the San Andres Mountains. They provide a beautiful, harsh backdrop to contrast with the soft appearance of the sand.
Not all of the sand is soft, though. In some places, the dunes have drifted away, exposing the hard, sandstone floor. Above, you can see one small dune that hardened over time.
[tmt_info =””]The dunes at White Sands are made of gypsum, which is a rare form of sand. Since gypsum dissolves in water, it’s rare to find large quantities in one place. But since no river drains the Tularosa Basin, the gypsum stays put.[/tmt_info]
As the sand shifts, some of the markers end up almost buried in the sand. Normally, even if one is missing, you can scan the horizon and find the next one, then plan your route.
As you head deeper into the dunes, you leave almost all signs of plant life behind. While it appears this plant died long ago, its root system was strong enough to keep a former dune from blowing away completely.
It seems almost every dune provides a good picture. If you travel the path early in the day, you’ll find much of the area unspoiled by footprints. During my visit, it was obvious only one person had walked the trail before me.
As you approach the alkali basin, the dunes abruptly end.
The only thing on the horizon, aside from the San Andres Mountains, is a military base, and its water tower.
At the edge of the dunes, the sandy floor forms tiny waves of hardened gypsum.
One more look back at the mountains.
As you (finally!) close in on the trailhead, after about two hours of hiking up and down dunes, you’ll see a few signs of plant life shooting up through the sand. Some of the trail markers also show you how many miles you’ve walked.
[tmt_info =””]The Alkali Flats Trail wasn’t as difficult as I feared. Most of the sand is hard-packed, and unless a dune is steep, you can hike up the side without causing a mini-sandslide. There are only a few places where you’ll need to climb to the top of a steep dune, most of the time, the trail either goes around them, or runs along the top of the dunes. Even so, this is a difficult trail, if only because of its length, and the intensity of the sun. Bring plenty of water, and prepare for at least a 2-hour hike.[/tmt_info]
Note: This trip was first published in 2006.